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Down the Mississippi: Kayakers ask, 'What About Blue?'

Terry Larson, who owns and operates Northern Adventures Guide Service and lives on Wolf Lake, gives his best wishes to the What About Blue? kayaking trio as they resume their trip down the Mississippi to bring attention to water issues. Kevin Lilly, right, founded the group and is joined on the trip by guides Danielle Kast and Brian Coggan, left. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

As they paddle the Mississippi River from start to finish, three kayakers are trying to get people to think blue as well as green.

The group is headed by Kevin Lilly of Tampa Bay, Fla., who envisioned the trip with friends five years ago. Lilly is the founder of What About Blue?, a nonprofit focused on bringing local, national and international to the global water crisis. Its mission is to enhance awareness of water and inspire action to preserve, cultivate, restore, protect, conserve and share safe water.

Until recently, Lilly was neither a kayaker nor a camper. He's learning how to be both, with the help of the rest of his team, guides Danielle Katz of Santa Monica, Calif., and Brian Coggan of San Francisco.

The kayakers started their journey Monday at the Mississippi's headwaters at Itasca State Park and will kayak 2,500 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The trip will conclude with closing ceremonies Oct. 30 at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans.

After three days of hard paddling, picking off leeches and sharing campsites with mosquitoes, they spent Thursday in Bemidji, meeting people they hope will follow their journey and embrace their message.

"We love the green," Lilly said noting that water is already part of the green movement, but they wish to bring more attention to the global issues facing this resource that so many take for granted.

Around the world, Lilly said, one in five people lacks access to clean water -- a total of 1.2 billion.

"I wish more Americans would just realize they have a privilege of turning on a faucet," he said, noting that for many people around the world, that simple act would feel like magic.

Local connection

Terry Larson, who owns and operates Northern Adventures Guide Service and lives on Wolf Lake, ran into the trio at Itasca State Park. He has followed their journey since.

On Thursday night, he treated them to a fish fry at the Lake Bemidji waterfront, featuring northern, bass and perch he'd caught the day before, along with french fries and pop. He and his wife, Mary, also gave the kayakers some wild rice from their land, blueberry muffins and jelly made from high-bush cranberries picked along the river.

"I just wanted to do something," Larson said.

"It's wonderful, meeting people along the way and hear their stories," Katz said. "Terry's had an amazing impact on our lives already."

Katz, 28, has been a guide since age 14. "I took my first river trip at 4 months -- it's in my blood," she said, explaining that it's a family business.

"I get to be part of something that's bigger than myself," she said of the trip. "It feels really worthwhile."

Coggan said he had never kayaked the Mississippi, nor has he traveled a river from its headwaters to the ocean.

"We're seeing the top 60 miles, which were really remarkable," he said of the trip from Itasca to Bemidji.

Coggan, who has primarily guided sea kayaking trips, said the kayakers get along well.

"We're all pretty different people, but I think that's going to actually add a lot to the trip," he said, noting that each has strength and weaknesses.

"In my experience, river trips really bring people together in a remarkable way."

In most trips Coggan has been on, the focus has been on getting to the destination. He was an environmental studies major and is aware of water issues, but this trip brings the issues closer to home.

The trio uses a gallon of water a day. Katz said they wash dishes with two cups of water; one to wash and one to rinse.

The group's Web site has tips on how to save water, as well as many other resources on water and comprehensive information on the organization, the trip, the kayakers and the charities they support.

Online presence

The group may sleep in tents on the ground, but they're not cut off from the rest of the world. They have a laptop in their carefully stashed belongings, and Lilly's cell phone connects to the Internet, where they update their Web site, blogs and Facebook and Twitter accounts, posting text, photos and videos, as well as current GPS coordinates.

In the movie "Forrest Gump," people avidly followed the title character, played by Tom Hanks, as he ran, day in and day out, for months.

"Imagine if Forrest Gump had Facebook," Lilly said, noting that they can educate people and unite communities.

They are also raising funds for three charities related to water: the River Network, a nationwide movement to preserve and restore clean and healthy waters; the Gulf Restoration Project, a network committed to restoring the Gulf of Mexico to an ecologically and biologically sustainable condition; and the Blue Planet Run Foundation, which strives to provide safe drinking water around the world.

With the equipment and expenses for their trip provided by sponsors, all the money they raise goes to the charities.

The group is asking people to give a "Latte for a Life" -- in other words, give $5 a month for a year to What About Blue? They hope to find 100 people in 50 cities to meet that challenge.

That $5 a month would provide three people with water in places such as Africa, Asia and South America, Lilly said.


Spending the day in Bemidji Thursday was very beneficial, Lilly said, adding that they walked around downtown, went to Keg 'N' Cork and Bar 209 and had Dave's Pizza twice.

After the fish fry early Thursday evening, the trio took photos at Paul and Babe, then slipped back into their kayaks to paddle to Stump Lake Campground. They will have stops in Grand Rapids, Brainerd, Little Falls and St. Cloud before a Minneapolis event scheduled for Aug. 22.

As the visitors paddled across Lake Bemidji Thursday, they were joined until the river outlet by fellow kayakers Mark Morrissey, outdoor program director at Bemidji State University; BSU student Jerry Smith, who works at the Outdoor Program Center at BSU; BSU student Karen Swedberg and Northwest Technical College student Kristie Larson.

Morrissey, who transported the kayakers from Bemidji to the headwaters to start the trip, has gone on a three-month sea kayaking trip himself.

"Long trips are pretty special," he said. "The people you meet along the way mean everything."

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